Tamsin McMahon reports on Andrew Keen’s new book How to fix the Future, in which he warns of a potential for “digital world war,” involving cyberattacks rather than guns and bombs. On the brighter side, Mr. Keen suggests ways to avert a dystopian digital future, in part through regulation and innovation.
Appropriate Subject Area(s):
History, social studies, current events, media studies
Key Question to Explore:
- What are some signs of a dystopian digital future, and how might societies avoid these dangers?
Weaponized, dystopian, cyberwarfare, antitrust, unassailable, indictment
Introduction to lesson and task:
Alleged Russian interference with the United States 2016 election which involved the manipulation of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, illustrate the dangerous potential of the digital world. Collecting, selling and stealing personal data is becoming a risk to global peace, as countries and individuals exploit our data and online media activities.
Students can benefit from a lesson in which they learn of the macro-dangers that accompany their use of social media, for example, or from numerous online entities tracking their searches and interests on the Internet. This social studies lesson is delivered by a media studies/critical thinking exercise. Students will examine excerpts from the attached article, and respond to the questions/prompts for each.
Action (lesson plan and task):
Engage students in a short discussion about their use of social media—how many are on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, for instance; how secure they think their information is on these platforms; and the kinds of problems can arise. Ask whether they’ve noticed offers for products or services that they’ve searched for popping up on their social media pages, or in other programs. Note that these data are being collected and sold, and that problems—such as identity theft—can and do arise as a result.
Organize students, four or five to a group, and provide each group with this worksheet. They are to read the entire article as they read and respond to the excerpts, below.
Read the article, then note the passages, below, and respond, in writing, to the questions or tasks for each.
“The online campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a prelude to a dark future where data will become weaponized by hostile states…”
- As far as your group knows, what online campaign is referred to here?
- What does “weaponized” mean, in this example?
“…sites such as Facebook and YouTube were undermining traditional media outlets, cannibalizing revenues from professional content creators, and allowing anonymous trolls to post content unconstrained by professional standards that could manipulate public opinion and “reinvent” the truth.”
- What do you think is meant by “cannibalizing revenues”?
- What is an online troll?
- What is an example of a medium that adheres to “professional standards?” Describe one or two standards that would be considered “professional.”
“…tech companies give away their products for free in exchange for consumer information that advertisers use to create highly targeted messages. It’s a business model built on mass surveillance, with personal data becoming the economy’s most valuable commodity.”
- Have you noticed online advertising that seems to know what you’re looking for, or the kinds of products or services you’ve been exploring online?
- Do you think of this as “mass surveillance?”
- How do you feel about this? Does it worry you, or do you find it helpful?
“In Mr. Keen’s vision of the war for the future, the villains are China and Russia, which are using online platforms to create surveillance states that undermine trust between citizens and their government.”
- How might such trust be undermined via social media?
- Do you think you have ever re-posted a Facebook or other media posting that may have been created by a foreign agent to influence visitors to your pages? Describe one, if you can.
“The heroes are countries such as Estonia, which is creating a digital ID system for its citizens – one that alerts them each time a government agency accesses their data.”
- What is a digital ID system, or what could it be?
- What do you think of this kind of regulation?
- Would you favour this or not? Give reasons.
“Canadian regulators have likewise taken a largely hands-off approach to social media companies…”
- Would you like to see regulators exercise more control over social media? Why or why not?
“Mr. Keen believes the most damaging effects of today’s digital revolution can be similarly managed through a combination of regulation, innovation, consumer and worker demands and education.”
- Describe some damaging effects, and suggest what kind of regulation or innovation might serve to manage online risk.
Consolidation of Learning:
- Students discuss the article in class, with the goal of ensuring that, collectively, they fully understand the questions and responses.
- In simple terms, students can describe some signs of a dystopian digital future, and suggest how societies might avoid these dangers.
- Students report on instances where they notice that their online activities are being tracked, and explain how they became aware of this.